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SLO County's response to Los Osos mudslide highlights a lack of representation



Los Osos is a beautiful place, but it's woefully underappreciated and underrepresented. It's time to change that.

In January, I had the opportunity to observe the devastation at Vista de Oro Estates, an area ravaged by floods and a mudslide that occurred on Jan. 9. Residents showed me photos and videos including several feet of water and mud rushing down their streets and into their homes. Then they showed me the extensive damage to their now-uninhabitable homes, some of which had water up to 3 feet inside.

How could this have happened? The Los Osos Community Services District (CSD) is responsible for maintenance and upkeep of a retention basin, which was supposed to protect lower-elevation properties in the area. Homeowners informed me that the CSD had taken no responsibility for the lack of upkeep with the retention basin. The district has shown a willingness to battle residents in court over clear damages as a result of their negligence. The district had years to plan for natural disasters like this, but didn't.

On Vista Court, a makeshift bulletin board held pertinent information for residents and volunteers. Who would've thought an inanimate bulletin board would be more impactful and present than a CSD or a county supervisor?

Though the radically gerrymandered Patten map disenfranchised Los Osos residents from having county representation, the lack of representation has been problem for years—and the proof is literally in the water.

For decades, Los Osos struggled to assert control over its water and wastewater. Even after the long-awaited sewer was finally built, the community continues to suffer from a critical shortage of water as a result of having a seawater-compromised, overdrafted aquifer. Last year, the community association Los Osans for Good Governance (LOGG) filed a lawsuit against the county over illegally permitted builds that advanced the depletion of Los Osos' already-dwindling water supply. The county had already expressed plans to build 30 percent more housing. In April 2022, the California Coastal Commission eventually stepped in, demanding the county halt any permit applications for any new water-consuming developments in Los Osos.

As of December 2022, the LOGG lawsuit is moving forward.

In the absence of good government, resilient Los Osos residents banded together to make a difference, working hand-in-hand with our amazing first responders and volunteers to overcome various challenges. Prior to this year's catastrophic storms, many kind Los Osos residents provided invaluable resources for others in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some have braved inhospitable conditions at the now-defunct safe parking area for unhoused individuals in Los Osos and took it upon themselves to clean up. Sadly, it took the county several months and countless emails to Supervisor Bruce Gibson's office to realize their parking program on Palisades Avenue was completely unsustainable with 30 to 50 vehicles parked there at any given time and the unhoused living in demonstrable squalor without proper sanitation. Though the county passed an ordinance in late 2021 to prohibit overnight camping in the area, Los Osos residents continue to complain about homeless activity in the area.

It's no wonder a group of residents thought it would be a good idea to incorporate Los Osos as a city. This proved to be an unpopular idea. The community overwhelmingly rejected that proposal because the community does not have a decided tax base nor the tax revenue required to have an operational city. Los Osos would need an additional $1.7 million in annual tax revenue to provide adequate public services and facilities. Los Osos doesn't even have the water required to develop enough housing and commercial projects to raise that kind of revenue. So why incorporate? Proponents pointed to a lack of representation. Whether one is for or against incorporation, Los Osos residents agree that's a huge a problem.

But now that it appears the Patten map is on its way to being dismantled and replaced with a more fair and equitable map, will that resolve the lack of representation in Los Osos? I doubt it.

For far too long, Los Osos has been perceived as the red-headed stepchild of the county, with residents being typecast as unruly and cantankerous. Decades of controversy surrounding their wastewater woes have fed into that perception. The fact is that residents have squarely put that matter to bed and are focused on their future. However, that perception sadly remains, and it's hard-coded into the way the county and the CSD respond to community concerns—as evidenced by the lackadaisical and snobbish responses the government has given to residents in the wake of the mudslide tragedy. Heck, they're not even given a boilerplate "thoughts and prayers."

Los Osos residents need and deserve love, respect, and dignity.

The people of Los Osos matter. Δ

Aaron Ochs wrote to New Times from Morro Bay. Send a response for publication to [email protected].

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